Excerpted from The Beautiful Otherness Of The Autistic Mind presented in the Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Autism And Talent’ organized by Francesca Happé and Uta Frith.
Published 12 April 2009 doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0009 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society - Biology. 27 May 2009 vol. 364 no. 1522 1345-1350
The Importance Of Fostering Talent
A theme that emerged from the Discussion Meeting was the adaptive value of fostering special interests and talents. This might seem self-evident, but stands in contrast to the tendency to see narrow and obsessive interests as maladaptive and limiting. Heaton (2009) makes a strong case in her paper that learning to play music has benefits for both social integration and personal development for young people with autism. Her work suggests untapped potential special to ASD, which makes the task of teaching children with socio-communicative impairments particularly important. For such children, music lessons should not be considered a luxury. Untapped potential in art or maths remains to be documented, but anecdotally parents or carers often discover an existing talent entirely by accident.
It may well be that the most paradoxical talent shown by some autistic individuals is the ability to tell their own story. Grandin (2009), who contributes here a paper about her own ability to think visually, is perhaps the most famous example. Hacking (2009) considers the paradox and the power of autobiographical accounts to shape our concept of autism. This, he points out, is not without danger. In particular, it is not clear to what extent we can generalize from the experiences reported by a number of high-functioning people with ASD to the experience of others who may never be able to speak for themselves. He gives the salutary warning that we really cannot know anything of what it is like ‘inside the autistic mind’.
One outstanding message in Grandin's presentation at the meeting was the possibility of lifelong learning: ‘I felt my brain switched on when I hit fifty’. This is discussed in her paper in this issue and raises the interesting possibility that developmental periods of exceptional brain plasticity may be extended in ASD. Lifelong learning may be of special importance in autism.
A striking feature of many talented people, whether autistic or not, is the precocious emergence of their skills. This in turn evokes a special environment, particularly in terms of the personal engagement of parents and teachers. The delight that parents feel in their child's achievement is at least as great in the case of autistic savants as neurotypical prodigies. Non-autistic maths, chess or sports prodigies also benefit from intense long-term professional coaching relationships, which deliver systematic expert feedback. By contrast, in many cases autistic talent emerges fully fledged without any systematic feedback by a trainer. In the case of calendar calculation, for instance, parents sometimes say they would not have wished to train this skill, and would have channelled their child's interest into a different direction, if only they could.